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Olympic Sailing: Lift your game with WindBot

by Richard Gladwell 26 Feb 05:08 PST 27 February 2019
Blair Tuke, Hamish Willcox and Peter Burling after the finish of the penultimate race 49er, winning the Gold medal with a race to spare - and with the WindBot setup on the coach boat - 2018 Rio Olympics © Sailing Energy / World Sailing


Three times World Champion in the 470 class and top Olympic sailing coach for New Zealand and Great Britain, Hamish Willcox explains how he used WindBot to improve his understanding of wind information to assist sailors like Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.

Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in some instances millions of dollars, being poured into national Olympic campaigns, some very basic practices are still used to attempt to understand trends in wind strength and direction.

Windbot, an integrated package of wind gear, software and a compact tablet with a daylight-readable screen has replaced the traditional seat of the pants, wind-guessing methods.

Hamish Willcox, a three times world 470 champion, former British Olympic team coach, now Yachting NZ Olympic coach, and part of the forecast team for four America's Cup Challenges, has worked with Windbot since it was launched before the 2012 Olympic Regatta.

"WindBot allows you to be involved a lot more", explains says Hamish Willcox, multiple World Champion in the Olympic 470 class and now one of the top Olympic Sailing coaches and America's Cup forecaster.

"Back in the old days you'd have a piece of wool and a hand bearing compass, and you would stay as involved as much as you could."

"With WindBot you can follow the fleet or team up the course and pretty much sail with them and have a good idea of the wind speed and direction, and have a pretty good idea of how the thing unfolded."

"It is not 100% because you have got different winds on different parts of the course and you have to have your visual observations as well. But it's a big help."

"That and the fact that you can clearly determine whether you wish to change settings or not with whatever system you use on the wind speed. Those are the two big winners for a coach," he adds.

For the past six years, the NZL Sailing Team have been using the Dunedin developed WindBot integrated hardware and software package. The essential kit consists of a carbon pole, attached to the coach boat, which holds an anemometer linked to a ruggedised tablet running the WindBot software application.

"The wind sensor is an acoustic anemometer," says Willcox. "Typically people think anemometers as being the cupped or vane-type anemometers but this is an important distinction and gives higher accuracy, as well as fewer moving parts."

The highly accurate acoustic anemometers were also set into the wingsails of America's Cup foiling multihulls to measure wind speed and wind shear at various heights.

"WindBot runs on a little tablet now, with a high visibility daylight screen. The upgrades they had coming out of Rio were very impressive. They can do a lot more with the new display and graphics."

"We started four years out from Rio with the prototypes, and the project has been ongoing since then."

Change settings pre-start

The WindBot package records and displays the current windstrength and direction, producing a trend readout for the coach and sailors ahead of a race start. Usually, the system starts recording once the coach boat leaves the beach and will apply various adjustments allowing for boat speed and direction to record true wind speed and direction.

"WindBot gives the coach and sailors the ability to clearly determine whether you wish to change settings on the race boat or not, depending on what is happening with the wind information and trends."

"Those are the two big winners for a coach," says Willcox, coach of Gold and three Silver medalists in several Olympic classes.

The WindBot package also has the ability to measure tidal current speed and direction as well as wind data.

"You just drop a current stick in the water, and push a button to set the measurement process running," says Willcox.

"A few minutes later you put the coach boat alongside the current stick (on the same side and position of the hull, and stop the process. WindBot then calculates the speed and direction of the current and show that on the display along with the windspeed information and trends."

Old habits die hard

Coaches trying to read the wind using traditional methods is one of the stranger sights at an Olympic sailing regatta or indeed any regatta.

At an Olympic Regatta where each nation's investment in high-performance programs runs well into six figures per class, it not unusual to see many coaches still trying to gauge the wind strength and direction using the traditional piece of wool attached to a stick in conjunction with a handheld compass/anemometer.

Notes, if taken, are on a wetnotes stuffed into a jacket pocket.

Then a battered laptop, without a bright daylight readable screen, is used to try and access the nearest publicly available wind readings - usually from the nearest lighthouse or airport, which has only passing relevance to the sailing racecourse.

Race officers too are making the switch to WindBot.

International Race Officer John Parrish (NZL) a "Course Representative" at two Olympics and numerous world championships has been using Windbot since 2015 after using WindBot at a Pre-Olympic Regatta in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro. "After that Regatta in Rio, I decided that I wasn't going to another event without WindBot", Parrish told Sail-World in June 2018.

A quick look around the massed coach and support boats, plus the competitors and their craft reveals a massive investment by sailors, clubs, and national sailing bodies, in sailing technology - all tweaked to within a millimetre of the rules.

The coaches and support teams don't come cheap - so why not give them the best tools available? Many now do.

First used at 2012 Olympics

The NZL Sailing team have been using YachtBot since the 2012 Olympic regatta, where the team had to lift their performance beyond the levels of a medal-less 2004 Olympic regatta, and a single Gold medal in 2008. The Kiwis improved to a Gold and Silver in 2012 and a Gold, two Silvers and a Bronze in Rio 2016, running a more focussed campaign - albeit it with some very talented sailors and coaches.

Typically sailors and coaches start their campaign six years out, and with 18 months left until Tokyo2020, now it's now down to the sharp end of the Olympic cycle, where the races do count, and medals are decided.

"Overall, YachtBot is a really good product; it is being developed all the time", Willcox says. "The ability to have good weather information on the coach boat has become essential to lifting the game that little bit more."

"We had weather gear before, but you need the accuracy. As a coach, you are moving around all the time. It is quite a hard equation to solve to get that accuracy, and I think in WindBot, they have done a really good job," he adds.

One of the mantra's of top Olympic coaches is that an Olympic medal is never won on the first day, but it certainly can be lost.

"The use of the wind speed is important for managing settings changes.

"It sounds really simple, but it is really important to be 100% confident that you need to change up or down from a setting knowing what the wind speed has been doing from one race to the next, and even in leading into the pre-start for the first race.

"That is a huge part of it for sure," Willcox adds.

Multiple uses

YachtBot has three principal uses - during home training sessions where the wind information from WindBot can be linked to a companion application YachtBot which is a position recording system.

At the regatta venue during practice sessions, the products can be used to record information and build up picture and wind expectations at the venue.

During the regatta itself, restrictions on data gathering may apply.

"There are certain limitations during the Olympic Games - in Rio we were allowed to collect a five minute average of the wind speed and wind direction," Willcox explains.

"We weren't allowed to process wind information in any other way other than a rolling five minute average of wind speed and direction."

"As a generalisation, everyone had a system for analysing the weather leading up to the Olympics. Every team had their own program. We had a really good simple way of managing that as well.

"The upgrades we got in Rio were very impressive, and the new display gave us the ability to do a lot more."

"The NZ team did a good job of managing a very complicated situation in Rio with those inside courses. Certainly, a big part of any team's build-up is understanding the local venue and conditions."

"Ready to go" wind systems

The style of Olympic programs is to race and train at a selected calendar of regattas - both at the venue and elsewhere in the world. While the race boats are sent by container, or based in Europe, usually coach boats are chartered from a local contact or yacht club.

Part of that style of program is being able to "plug and play", and especially to be able to set up wind systems that will work on a consistent basis with a minimum tuning and adjustment to the chartered coach boat.

WindBot is very portable with all components, including the pole for the anemometer breaking down into a carry case which can be carried as part of the coach's travelling luggage. The addition of the tablet has improved the display readability.

"We would take everything with us. It all packs down into a nice travel case, and we would go to the regatta venue with WindBot and fit it to whatever coach boat we could get at the event.

"It is very transferable from place to place and boat to boat."

Fits with cost reduction rules

One obvious area for further development of WindBot is to link the wind recording and tracking application with a forecasting or wind prediction system, like the widely used Predictwind, which has the ability to be localised.

Apart from that comment, Willcox is coy about revealing any future developments under possible development for the Kiwi team.

One issue that is looming for both the Olympics and America's Cup is that of cost restriction on weather data capturing and processing technology.

In Auckland there will only be two support vessels per team allowed to operate wind measuring devices, and can be operated only "while its AC75 is sailing at the time in the Racing Area" - meaning that wind measurement is permitted only while the race yachts are tuning up before a race, during the race itself, and between races.

For the Olympics Willcox suggests a continuation of the current rules is the most practical solution. "Everyone would be happy with reading in real-time and storing a five-minute average and no further analysis. That is a minimum position World Sailing could take."

Willcox is keen to see some rules around cost containment introduced, but notes that in Weymouth [2012 Olympics], there was always some concern that some countries were finding their way around the rules.

"From a personal point of view, I would prefer to see it simplified and cutting back on the tools. I'm also one of the advocates of keeping coaches in a box outside the start area, because of the chaos they cause when they move around the course. It's an accident waiting to happen. There is so much risk in charging around the course for very little gain. With a good set of binoculars, you can see everything you need from the bottom of the course. If you need to get in close, you can do it in the build-up to the regatta."

"It is another smart thing to be thinking about from a competitor's point of view, if the coaches are to be contained in a box for the Olympics, then you have to start thinking about that well ahead of time, and the World Cup events have to do the same.

"It gives the competitors a much bigger playing field, because at present the space is greatly restricted by the coach boat wakes, and it just becomes chaotic around marks."

At the 2016 Olympics Willcox was coach of Gold medalists, and now America's Cup champions) Peter Burling and Blair Tuke (Mens Two-Person Skiff - 49er), says he could live with the rolling five-minute average restriction on wind data collection on Olympic race days as applied in Rio.

"One of the hardest things is to make a decision on your settings, and one of the things that WindBot solves is that decision."

Works for newer coaches

The universal availability of a package like WindBot helps erase some of the gap between top-level coaches of whom there are very few, and the less experienced who might be on their first Olympic cycle or coaching at a lower level.

"I think WindBot would help a less experienced coach just as much.

"The less experienced coach might fall into the trap of using the tool too much and not making the observations around it.

"A coach definitely can do a lot by grabbing a screenshot and taking it to the debriefing table and saying "this is how, in time-lapse, it unfolded down the course, or up the first beat where I was."

"Or being able to say: "during the race, the wind was racheting around to the right and here is the graph for the last 25 minutes. That kind of thing is very helpful in the debrief."

The obvious question is given the amount of information available from WindBot, how much should be shown to the competitors, without confusing them with information overload?

"Sometimes it is useful to see the screen", Willcox answers. "It is amazing how little of the time two days on the coach boat are ever the same. Your set of priorities changes from day to day - even when conditions appear to remain the same."

"One of the tricks that when you are waiting for wind, you get some pretty dreadful data, with interference from other boats - so you have to remember to screen that all out.

"You also have to be very conscious about where you are driving the boat all the time - and that can be the difference between a good coach and a less experienced coach.

"It is pretty easy to pass the wrong information across."

Turning to the applicability of YachtBot to the America's Cup, Willcox has been a weather team member and coach for four Challenger campaigns.

"WindBot is a pretty close match", Willcox says. "Some of the equations would need to be refined when the chase boat moves, accelerates and decelerates, but for a startup, they have gone a long way to the standard required for a professional team."

While information systems such as Windbot are not usually permitted to be carried aboard racing dinghies (but are legal on coach and support boats), there is no reason why the system cannot be used in racing keelboats and multihulls, particularly for in shore racing, when the race boat is already equipped with acoustic anemometer(s).

But that's a story for another day.

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